It’s back! Formula 1 is finally back! It feels like an eternity has passed since the high drama of Abu Dhabi. The controversy of 2021’s finale is but one ingredient in what should be a fascinating season, and an intriguing opening race.
57 laps around the Bahrain International Circuit await our drivers. They will probably have to overcome breezy and dusty conditions. They’ll need to adapt to the new handling properties of the 2022 cars. There is the weight of expectation and the playing-down of those expectations. Who is fast? Who has disguised their true pave until now? After the fireworks of Abu Dhabi last year, how will the two protagonists from that that epic clash (indeed, season) respond?
In practice for the race it appeared Mercedes’ assertions that they were off the pace were in fact a reality. The Silver Arrows had radically altered their car after the first round of testing, and it seemed to be a mistake.
Mercedes have tried to eliminate the sidepods from their car, and it appeared to have dubious results in testing. Nor was it especially quick in FP1 and FP2. Were they sandbagging, or was this a genuine problem? Meanwhile Red Bull appeared to be quick, and so did Ferrari.
The prospect of Ferrari finally getting their act together and developing the sort of cars they should produce (especially with their resources) is a mouth-watering one, for if it proves true, it would pit the talented Charles Leclerc and the consistent Carlos Sainz against Max Verstappen. My personal view is that Verstappen is the heir to Hamilton’s crown as the best on the grid, but Leclerc in particular has the potential to be a serious rival to Max. However testing and practice are one thing – the heat of battle is quite another.
One team that seemed to go backward was McLaren. In practice they looked slow, but as ever, were they hiding the true performance of their car? For the sake of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris, they had better be. Both McLaren drivers are quite quick and punchy, but no driver can overcome a seriously underwhelming car.
Elsewhere there had been other changes. Nikita Mazepin had been fired from Haas in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his place came Kevin Magnussen, who spent a few years at Haas but was absent in 2021. Nico Hulkenberg would replace Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin for Bahrain, due to the latter having covid.
Qualifying proved that practice times were more or less accurate. Ricciardo was eliminated in Q1. His McLaren teammate Norris made it to Q2 with a stupendous lap but could go no further. Red Bull looked quick but so did Ferrari, and Leclerc snatched pole by a narrow margin from both Verstappen and Leclerc’s teammate Sainz. Perez was fourth and then came the Mercedes of Hamilton. In an interesting twist, Bottas out-qualifed the man who replaced him at Mercedes, parking his Alfa Romeo in sixth. Magnussen put his Haas in seventh. Both teams struggled last season (especially Haas), so the new rules had definitely had the desired effect from their point of view. Alonso qualified eighth and then came Russell in the other Mercedes. Gasly’s AlphaTauri completed the top ten.
The race itself was quite entertaining. Leclerc got away well and so did Verstappen. The Dutchman got his nose ahead of Sainz, who briefly came under pressure from Hamilton, whilst Perez slipped back a few places. Magnussen enjoyed a good start and Bottas made a terrible start, slipping right down the field. After a few laps the superior performance of the Ferraris and Red Bull saw them pull away from the Mercedes, and the race settled into a rhythm, at least until the first stops. Verstappen was very quick on his out-lap and, despite having been nearly three seconds behind Leclerc, was close enough to pounce with DRS and take the lead into turn 1. Leclerc responded immediately and went back ahead around the outside of turn 4. Rinse and repeat on the following lap. On each occasion Leclerc had the intelligence to make sure to pick up DRS into turn 4, and on the third approach to turn 1 Verstappen locked up and hurt his front-left tyre. He had no more power to attack, so had to settle for following for a bit.
Mercedes tried a one-stop on a track best suited to a two or three-stop strategy. They put hard compound tyres on Hamilton’s car, and the result was that the Englishman nearly slid off the track! The tyre temps start out cooler than before, and cooler tyres are slippery. He and Russell were nearly half a minute down on Leclerc as the race reached the halfway mark – an unimaginable gap in the turbo-hybrid era. Eventually they’d abandon the attempt. Meanwhile Verstappen was unhappy that his out-lap on the mediums didn’t bring him into range of Leclerc – he’d been told not to push too hard, something that never sits well with any F1 driver. In truth Leclerc’s second stop was quick, and bought him at least half a second.
Verstappen then began to complain of steering problems. He continued to loiter a few seconds behind Leclerc and Perez (who had recovered to fourth) closed to a few seconds of Sainz. No one else was remotely close, until Gasly’s AlphaTauri suffered some form of system failure and caught fire on the side of the track. Some cars had already made a late third stop, but now the safety car came out, and triggered a flurry of additional stops. At the restart Verstappen’s problems grew significantly worse. His car failed, and with it, his race ended. A few laps later Perez suffered a similar fate. It may have been a fuel flow issue, but whatever it was, it handed Ferrari a one-two finish and it handed Hamilton an unlikely podium.
The incident also promoted Magnussen to fifth, Bottas to a well-recovered sixth, and Ocon’s Alpine to seventh. Tsunoda grabbed eighth for AlphaTauri, Alonso made it a double-points finish for Alpine with ninth, and Zhou made it a double-points finish for Alfa Romeo, finishing tenth on his debut. Schumacher narrowly missed out for Haas, who appear to have turned a major corner.
Other teams appear to have serious problems. Williams don’t seem to have made much progress. Aston Martin and McLaren have gone backwards. McLaren in particular had a torrid race, when weighed against the standards of the last couple of seasons. There is clearly going to be a lot of work to do for them.
The day belonged to Leclerc and Ferrari. He took pole, led every lap, set the fastest lap and won the race. A one-two finish owed something to luck, but Sainz kept himself in the pocket to take advantage of any mishaps. They have thrown down a gauntlet to Red Bull, and it seems they have the performance in their car to be serious contenders. Leclerc is talented, though it remains to be seen if he can be as talented as Verstappen. Sainz is reliable and consistent. Everything in F1 is transitory, and Ferrari’s resurgence was inevitable at some point. It might be now.
Haas too have undergone a revolution. After a dismal 2021, they scored points, and looked sharp. The disruption of losing Mazepin’s money and replacing him at short notice does not appear to have knocked their performance. Granted it’s one race, but already it’s a major step forward for the American team.
Mercedes have work to do. They inherited third and fourth due to Red Bull’s reliability issues. On raw pace alone they do not have what it takes. The feeling is that they can unlock more speed and there is more to come from the car’s unique aero package. Their chief issue is going to be how long it takes to reach their full potential. If they can discover some extra speed over the next three or four races they will have a chance at the championship. If it takes much longer they could find themselves cut adrift.
For now, it’s advantage Ferrari.